Q: My mother-in-law passed away this summer after a brief illness. She died on my wife’s birthday. I fear that day will never be the same. How can I celebrate my wife’s birthday after her mother’s death?

First off, kudos to you for being cognizant of your spouse’s emotions. Faced with this situation, many men would think tactically, and try to just “make it through the day.” I applaud you for being intentional about the emotional needs of your wife with regards to grief. I know that, whatever you execute, your caring is going to shine through.

That said, you’re right in assuming your wife’s birthday won’t be the same. The day has been marked by a traumatic event, and that is going to change things. However, this doesn’t mean you have to make it about one or the other. You can honor your mother-in-law’s death and celebrate your wife’s birthday. The day can be about both because both things are true.

The biggest thing is to include your wife in the planning. Leading up to that day, ask her about what she would like to do. You can say, “Is there a way you want to go about looking at this day? Do you want to do something a day ahead for your mom, and make your birthday totally about you? Or would you rather share the day?” Follow her lead, and work within her parameters.

As you discuss options, consider your wife’s relationship with her mother. If it was a healthy, loving relationship, think about creating a moment that looks back on a happy memory, or focus on a positive activity your wife shared with her mother. If Mom loved gardening, you could ask her about Mom’s favorite flowers, or take your wife to a botanical garden. If you have a favorite memory of your mother-in-law, feel free to share it as well.

On the other hand, if your wife’s relationship with Mom was a complicated one, expect mixed emotions to come up. She may get frustrated — for example, perhaps the relationship was tense, and now there’s a cloud hanging over her birthday. You can try saying, "I know this must be hard. What can we do to lift your spirits today?” In this way, you help reframe the day.

Bear in mind also that this is a work in progress. This is the first of many birthdays your wife will spend without Mom, and right now, the wound is fresh. I’m guessing that she’s thinking more about the death anniversary than her birthday. This year, she may want to just lay low and stay home. Five years from now, though, things may be very different.

Luckily, you already recognize this year is a big deal. So, go ahead and take the day off from work. Be with your wife from start to finish and do your best to create peace and happiness for her. But don’t overcompensate. Just think about how you celebrated birthdays before, and stay true to that spirit. However, don’t be afraid to be flexible in the day. If you see she’s sitting there in heaviness, you may want to ask if she’d like to go visit the grave and put flowers on it.

But don’t think because she’s struggling that means you’ve failed. The greatest thing you can give someone experiencing deep reflections, sadness, and confusion is a companion. So, whatever happens, just acknowledge her emotions, and try to be with her in a comfortable way. Being present is actually the best present.

 

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Our advice is based on our experience cleaning out and settling estates for our clients. Each project is different, and each state's laws are different. We always recommend that you consult personally with experts about your particular situation before making any important decisions.